Finding a Home for 700 3D Scans with the California Academy of Sciences

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Laurel Allen, Digital-Engagement Manager at the California Academy of Sciences, on the “scrappy, year-long digital rescue” that resulted in more than 700 unusually detailed models—all specimens from the Academy’s scientific collections—finding a home (most for the very first time) on Sketchfab.

The Academy is probably best known as an aquarium, rainforest, planetarium, and natural history museum, but despite the collective wonder of those features and the 40,000 animals we’re home to, it’s fair to say the basement is where it’s really at. That’s where you’ll find the Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability, encompassing more than 100 research scientists and nearly 46 million scientific specimens—collections that go back literally hundreds of years.

Our exhibits usually reflect that dual role of public museum and research institution, and 2014’s Skulls was no exception. While creating that, we partnered with Google to create roughly 40 models from our collections—a range that included everything from a juvenile Asian elephant, to common warthogs, to Amazon river dolphins—for use in exhibit interactives. Down in the basement, however, Google had also made a proprietary scanner available to IBSS staff, and some had slowly, quietly began to build an incredible (but largely unknown) 3D library as part of their day-to-day work.

In mid-2016, Google’s Cultural Institute (on which our public-facing skulls lived) announced it would soon no longer support 3D objects. Academy interactive developer Greg Rotter quickly scrambled to find a solution that would keep those models accessible, and set out to track down the 40 original exhibit files. What he found instead was more than 900 different models: mammal skulls, bird skulls, starfish, California baskets, fish, fossils, sea urchins, reptiles, mollusks—the result of our staff and collection managers’ earlier quiet work, and overwhelming in both volume and diversity.

Identifying a permanent new home for the digital collection wasn’t difficult (“There’s really no other platform that touches what Sketchfab has accomplished in this space,” says Rotter), but what came next was slightly less straightforward. The collections data—critical information about what each specimen is, and when, where, and by whom it was found—was missing from the individual models. All Rotter had were 900+ file names, and several terabytes of very cryptic scan data.

To solve for that, he reached out to individual collections managers, arranged data dumps from each proprietary database, and sat down to figure out how to normalize all that data, pair it with the scans, and address the fact that our original scans were too big. The end result was a series of scripts that automated everything: the metadata pairing, the decimating of the original 3D files, and the upload itself. Or as Rotter calls it, “a super-fun bit of digital archaeology.”

That pairing gave us the correct catalog number for each specimen, after which colleague Kristina Fong and I could start the year-long process of looking up every model in collections databases, then manually copying the specimen’s information over to its Sketchfab model. A handful of the scans had distortions the collection managers weren’t comfortable with, and another large handful were still missing identifying info (we’ll add those as we solve the individual mysteries), but at the end of the process, we had 705 models we’re eager to share. Setting aside the ridiculous visual beauty of many of these specimens, making 3D versions available offers big benefits to both those who want to access Academy collections, and to the collections themselves.

“The 3D scans allow people to view the specimens without having to travel to the museum, which better serves a wider group of people,” says Mammalogy Collections Manager Moe Flannery. “But it also reduces the handling and wear-and-tear on these irreplaceable specimens.”

“And these 3D models offer so much more than static reference images,” says Anthropology Collections Manager Laura Eklund. “Designs that present as lines or chevrons from the side emerge as spirals or starbursts when viewed from above. Being able to see these pieces from all sides and angles is vital to understanding and appreciating them.”

To make the 700+ models easier to browse and identify, we’ve organized them into 11 different collections, which we hope will be used widely by everyone from scientists and researchers to teachers, artists, naturalists, students. And while our download permissions aren’t turned on, we actually welcome download requests via the Google Form users will find on each model’s page. We know it’s a bit of a weird process, but by giving us some quick, basic info about how and in what environments they plan to use the models, users are actually providing critical use-and-impact data that helps to directly support our scientific collections. (Side note: These models also make for incredible printed objects in classrooms or elsewhere, though due to the high level of detail, users may need to work with the file to thicken or connect some segments before printing.)

California Academy of Sciences | Kathryn Whitney

In addition to making scientific collections more accessible, the Academy is also using Sketchfab to directly connect and collaborate with other scientists—as our in-house Visualization Studio did while working on our latest planetarium show. “We were in the midst of a production about coral reefs and had been in search of high-quality 3D models to use,” says motion graphics designer and animator Ken Ackerman. “While browsing Sketchfab, we came across Yasmeen Smalley-Norman, a scientist who was doing some really excellent work reconstructing corals using photogrammetry. We contacted Yasmeen and she readily collaborated with us and shared her models—which we then used extensively in our award-winning planetarium show, Expedition Reef.”

The Academy’s Viz Studio also uses Sketchfab to quickly and easily share their work with other partners and collaborators. “Rather than sending someone a flat, static image of a model or photogrammetry project we’re developing,” says Ackerman, we can send them a link to work they can tumble around and scrutinize from all angles.” Viz Studio’s Sketchfab account is a behind-the-scenes look at some truly brilliant science, containing everything from tests of how Viz Studio adapted software meant to simulate crowd-movement to schools of fish, to photogrammetry-built models of the Academy’s 212,000-gallon Philippines Coral Reef exhibit.

Whether you’re inspired by 100-year-old skulls or cutting-edge underwater photogrammetry captures, we hope you’ll find something on our pages to like. And if you have time to let us know, that would be pretty inspiring for us, too. Thanks!

Find the Academy on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and on Snapchat at “heycalacademy.”

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